mental health

Trauma can make it hard for kids to learn. Here’s how teachers learn to deal with that.

Childhood trauma can make it hard for students to focus or behave in classrooms.

There’s no debating that childhood trauma seriously impacts how students learn. Researchers have tied stressful events such as divorces, deportations, neglect, sexual abuse and gun violence to behavioral problems, lower math and reading scores, and poor health. The latest research, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, finds that children who endure severe stress are more likely to suffer heart attacks and mental health disorders.

So, we know trauma affects kids, but how do we teach educators to confront it? That’s where Dr. Colleen Cicchetti comes in.

PHOTO: Lurie Children's Hospital
Dr. Colleen Cicchetti.

A child psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s medical school, she helps lead the hospital’s efforts to improve how local schools handle trauma. The goal: to train teachers to spot and respond to warning signs in kids. Last Tuesday and Wednesday, about 150 aspiring teachers with Golden Apple’s scholars program attended day-long training sessions.

It’s not the job of a teacher to become a mental health provider, said Cicchetti, who earlier this year was named Public Educator of the Year by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It’s really their job to try to understand what barriers are making it hard for them to do their job.”

Chalkbeat Chicago interviewed Cicchetti about training teachers, the cost of childhood trauma in Chicago communities, how it takes a toll on classrooms, and what teachers can do to promote healing in schools.

What are some examples of the different types of trauma Chicago children might be dealing with?

Seeing someone shot, seeing someone stabbed. It could be sexual abuse, it could be physical abuse. It could be parents incarcerated, divorced, separation, death. It can be someone that you know being killed, someone you know in a car accident.

What are some ways that trauma finds its way into the classroom?

Flashbacks, difficult sleeping, difficulty eating, choosing not to — or being unable to — enjoy the things you used to enjoy. Being hyperalert where you are scanning the space because you don’t feel safe, which impacts your learning. There’s that hopelessness and sense that the world is dangerous. They might be getting in fights. Another thing we sometimes see is frequent absences.

We see some kids who are spending a lot of time in the nurse’s offices, complaining of stomachaches and headaches — their biology is triggered.

We often see it manifest in difficulty negotiating relationships with other people. Some days they can be really engaged with the teacher, the next day they’re really angry and throwing temper tantrums.

How do you teach teachers to recognize trauma?

We do these trainings called Trauma 101. We show them pictures of brains and which areas of the brain are impacted by that flight-or-fight response being triggered all the time. We talk about the ACES studies. (Many studies on Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES, have linked childhood trauma with the development of diseases like diabetes and heart disease, behavioral problems, substance-abuse disorders in adults, and self-harm. But chronic trauma also can disrupt brain development, impair learning, and make it hard to cope with emotions.)

child trauma pyramid
PHOTO: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

We look at the symptoms you would see [of PTSD] and what that would look like in a classroom. For example, a kid having flashbacks: You might see a kid who is distracted or looking out the window, or they’re having nightmares so they’re coming into class and putting their head on their desks and they’re sleeping during class because the classroom feels safe and they can’t sleep at night. We sort of try to walk between the clinical symptoms and the manifestations you may see in the classroom.

How do you teach teachers what to do once they see signs of trauma? What are they supposed to do?

The first level is to be aware of kids you think are likely to be experiencing trauma in your classroom. What do you do to create a sense of safety, and do that self-regulation and peer building in your classroom? But if you have kids who are sort of experiencing more challenges and those things aren’t working, in Chicago Public Schools we have something called a request for assistance. Teachers can fill out a form and submit it to their social worker or their behavioral health team. Somebody in the school will do a more in-depth assessment or screening. Those kids are then linked to services, either provided by the school or, in some cases, there’s community providers.

There are few — if any — jobs harder than teaching. What are the limits to what teachers can really do?

In a lot of schools, it’s not very safe for a teacher to say ‘I’m struggling with this student.’ But when teachers feel very isolated, and then feel bad and get angry at themselves and at the student, that’s where burnout comes in. What we’re trying to create is a culture within a school, not just the teachers, but from the administration to all the adults in the buildings, that says it’s our job to take care of the whole child here. If a child is struggling, it’s not a bad teacher, it’s a situation we need to modify.

We try to only go into schools and have these conversations when we’re invited in at the systems level, where the administrators are talking about understanding professional development and reflective learning practices for new teachers, and mentoring, so they can understand why this work is crossing over into their home lives, why they’re coming home grumpy, or overeating or drinking, and don’t want to go back to work. It’s hard, but we can teach you what you can do to set your classroom up to be successful, and also make sure you have the right kind of supports, so if you’re seeing a kid who’s struggling — and you’re struggling — that you can reach out to other adults in the building.

What does a safe classroom look like in practice for a kid who has experienced trauma, maybe multiple forms of trauma in their lives?

It’s predictable. [Students] know what expectations are, what they need to do to be successful. There’re different parts of the day where it may be getting hard for them to focus, but then they get breaks.

If you didn’t get your homework done it’s not super punitive. We want to hold people accountable and help them be successful, but let’s say maybe they took three buses to get to school and they were babysitting their siblings last night, so they don’t have enough time for an assignment. Are you going to get a zero or will you be coming in during your recess or lunch break to get this done?

It’s an environment that says, I believe you can be successful, and I’m going to stack the deck for your success. I’m going to provide both physical safety and emotional safety. We’re going to have rules around respecting differences and how we talk to one another. We’re going to have restorative conversations and practices around discipline, so we can not be so reactive. And we’re going to foster relationships both with kids and between each other.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned focusing energy on what is under negotiation now: ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.